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Ever wondered why your horse is always full of mud after you left him or her in the paddock for  a while? Of course, it is obvious that they have been rolling around in the mud, but have you ever wondered why they love doing it so much?
Why do horses roll?

“There are various reasons,” explains Dr. Margit Zeitler-Feicht. She is an expert on behavior and has been working at the science center of TU Munich for over 30 years. She focuses on research concerning animal welfare. According to her rolling serves as coat care and improves their well-being.

When horses start to shed, that is usually the time they love to roll the most. However, rolling can also be related to negative feelings. For example, when the coat is itchy due to insect bites or allergies. Another reason is pain. The most common example is rolling because of colic.  There is also the case of frustration. In this case rolling could be seen as an upset behavior. “If the horse has build up lots of energy, – due to very little paddock time-, the need to move is so high that the horse will buck and run and throw him or herself on the ground to roll because they are so over motivated.” Rolling is a basic need that the horse should be able to have everyday.

The rolling ritual

Horses usually search for their rolling spot on muddy or sandy grounds. They sniff and examine the scents. “They try to find out which social partner has previously rolled on that spot,” says Zeitler-Feicht. Then they check out the ground below them before they fold their front legs and lay on their side.

If the horse can’t roll from one side to another, is that a health issue?

“Being able to roll on their side is something they are born to do,” explains Zeitler-Feicht. “Rolling from one side to another is something they learn.” Basically, it depends on how flexible the horse is in order for them to roll over their back. Some horses stand up before they roll on the other side. “This can also happen, because they want to scratch themselves under the stomach and thighs,” says the expert. When the horse abruptly changes its own rolling technique and seems unhappy, it can be a sign of a health issue.

Are there horses that don’t roll at all?

No! Even foals already master this habit. “If a horse does not roll at all, there must be a reason,” warns Dr. Zeitler-Feicht. In this case you should be concerned. Is your horse in pain? As mentioned before rolling is a basic need for the horse and belongs to the daily horse care program. If they don’t do it, something must be wrong.

Do horses prefer dry or muddy grounds?

This depends on the motivation to roll. They usually prefer rolling on dry grounds. During shedding some horses prefer damp grounds. Once the mud dries, dead skin cells and hair will cling to it and fall off along with the mud. Dry sand on the other hand works like a peeling treatment. Basically horses enjoy both. Horses that don’t have frequent access to muddy or sandy grounds will roll inside the stable on their bedding, especially when it’s still fresh.

When horses roll, a chain reaction happens. Why is that?

It is a “mood transfer” or also called neurophysiological process. This can be compared to yawning in humans. If one person yawns, another will follow. If a horse rolls, his or her paddock or stable buddy will follow as well.

True or false, do stallions that live in the herd always roll last?

True! And there is a reason for that. “If a horse rolls, it will leave a certain scent on that spot”, explains Dr. Margit Zeitler-Feicht. The alpha stallion rolls last to cover the scent of others. In groups that consists  of several colts- the so called bachelor groups- you can tell who is alpha through their rolling ritual. “The one who rolls last has the highest rank in the herd”, says the expert. However, in herds where stallions are mixed with mares and geldings the order is not so clear.

Do horses have to trust their herd members or humans in order for them to roll beside them?

“It depends on the cause”, says Dr. Margit Zeitler-Feicht.  It’s all about their comfort in relation with their well-being. In this case trust could play a role. If the horse is in pain, for example when he or she is suffering from a colic, then he or she will lay down and roll whether or not a human is beside him or her.

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